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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Review: Grizzly Man (2005)

* * * *

Director: Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is no stranger to stories of men battling against the world itself, trying to harness the power of nature and remake it according to their own design, which makes him uniquely suited to tell the story of Timothy Treadwell. For 13 summers Treadwell camped out in Katmai National Park to be near the grizzly bears he loved so dearly, filming them and, to his mind, protecting them from poachers and safeguarding their environment. This came to an abrupt end in the autumn of 2003, when he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and partially eaten by a bear, Treadwell's omnipresent camera catching the audio of the event, but not the video as the lens cap was on. Using the footage collected by Treadwell over his years in Alaska, Herzog creates a stunning portrait of madness and beauty.

Treadwell is both the director and star of the footage he shot, usually setting up his camera and then stepping foot in front of it to provide his testimonials about his experiences on that particular day, his observations of the bears often in the background, and his general thoughts and feelings about nature, himself, and the world. He feels bonded to the bears, whom he names and frequently gets ridiculously close to (close enough that, in a few shots, he can touch them), but alienated from human society which he sees as uncaring and selfish when it comes to nature. More importantly, he does not just see himself as one man fighting on behalf of the bears, but as the only man doing so. Though he eschews the notion of himself as a celebrity in one of his confessionals, it's also fairly clear that he sort of got off on the idea of being a kind of "bear whisperer" who could commune with the grizzlies in a way no other man could, and that his dislike of his status as a minor celebrity had to do with the way it attracted others to Katmai who wanted to see what he was doing up close. It was important to him that he be seen as doing this on his own and in his videos he emphasizes his total isolation from society, even though at various periods during his 13 summers in the bush he was sometimes in the company of Huguenard or other female companions. In his efforts at self-mythologizing he skirted the truth, because you can't be a man alone with nature if you're known to have an entourage following you.

In interviews with Treadwell's friends and family, people whom he dealt with from the Parks service, and people who dealt with the aftermath of his and Huguenard's deaths, Treadwell comes off as a man who had some difficulty relating to people, and perhaps felt somewhat rejected by society at large, and retreated into nature, surrounding himself with creatures that he could relate to in a simple, straightforward way - the bears and other animals would either accept him or reject him, without the sometimes complicated nuances that can make human beings hard to read. His love for bears seems genuine, but also so intense as to suggest that Treadwell may not have been wholly moored mentally. Certainly that seems to have been the opinion, to greater and lesser degrees, of those on the outside, who are critical of Treadwell's efforts to join the bears and be considered one of them (one interviewee described Treadwell as behaving as if the animals were people wearing bear suits, but it seems more accurate to say that Treadwell considered himself to be a bear in a person suit), as well as the fact that the frequency and intimacy of his contact with them normalized human contact for them, which could in turn make the bears vulnerable by making them unafraid of humans.

But Treadwell is celebrated, too, by those who knew and loved him and see the nobility in what he was doing, and he is defended to some degree by Herzog. Herzog is not what you could call an invisible documentarian creating an illusion that the film is telling an objective story. Herzog acts as narrator as well as director and lays out the narrative of Grizzly Man in very direct fashion, openly interpreting the story himself rather than leaving it to the viewer to do so. This is a strategy that would not work for all filmmakers, but it works for Herzog generally speaking and with Grizzly Man in particular because Herzog is not just telling the audience what to think, but explaining why he connects with the piece so personally. He connects with Treadwell filmmaker to filmmaker, openly admiring the footage that Treadwell was able to gather as a result of his fearlessness where the bears were concerned as well as his familiarity to them, even if he doesn't share Treadwell's optimistic spirit ("I believe that the common denominator of the universe is not harmony," Herzog states at one point, "but chaos, hostility, and murder.").

Whether Treadwell's story is one of inspiration or folly is ultimately not debated in Grizzly Man. Herzog seems to see elements of both in this story, acknowledging the more horrifying aspects of Treadwell's fate (the audio recording of Treadwell and Huguenard's deaths is never played, but there is a scene in which Herzog listens to the recording with headphones and the camera focuses on Treadwell's friend, Jewel Palovak, watching him listening to the tape and becoming visibly upset by the intensity of his reaction - it's easily the most profoundly affecting scene in the film) while also acknowledging that Treadwell's determination to live life on his own terms regardless of the danger he was putting himself in allowed him to leave behind something special in the form of the amazing footage he was able to compile. Of all the madmen whose insane endeavors Herzog has brought to the screen over the years, Treadwell is one of his most fascinating. It's a shame Klaus Kinski never got a chance to play him.

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